(Book Review) A History of America in Ten Strikes

a history of america in 10 strikesA History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis uses the history of labor strikes in the United States as a lens to look at broader trends in American history. The ten strikes include the Lowell Mill Girls strike, The Eight-Hour-Day Strikes, The Anthracite Strike, The Bread and Roses Strike, The Flight Sit-Down Strike, The Oakland General Strike, and strikes among air traffic controllers, slaves, janitors, and more. Through tracking these strikes, Loomis follows U.S. history from the Industrial Revolution to contemporary America.

The central thesis of Loomis’s book is that the history of labor strikes in the United States offers important insights into other “critical parts” of our history:

We cannot fight against pro-capitalist mythology in American society if we do not know our shared history of class struggle. This book reconsiders American history from the perspective of class struggle not by erasing the other critical parts of our history–the politics, the social change, and the struggles around race and gender–but rather by demonstrating how the history of worker uprisings shines a light on these other issues. (5)

More specifically, he argues that strikes are important moments for reasserting the struggles Americans share in common:

Strikes are moments of tremendous power precisely because they raise the stakes, bringing private moments of poverty and workplace indignity into the public spotlight. And unless you are a millionaire boss, we are all workers, if we only realize that all of us–farmworkers and teachers, insurance agents and construction workers, graduate students and union staffers–face bad bosses, financial instability, and the desperate need for dignity and respect on the job. (6)

As Loomis wraps his history, he turns to the contemporary moment in U.S. politics, especially the role of the white working class in the 2016 election and the decline of labor unions. He argues for a reassertion of the role of the worker and presents something of a call to action for workers to demand better labor policy:

We need to reorient American history in order to make it pro-worker again. First, workers have to take control over their own destiny in order to give themselves power. No government is going to do anything for workers if workers do not demand it first. (224)

Maybe, like me, you didn’t get any history of labor in your K-12 education, or at least not much.  What I found really useful about this book is the way that Loomis connects the strikes to much broader movements in U.S. history. For example, when discussing slave revolts, Loomis also discusses the role of slavery in the economy, the end of slavery, and more contemporary protests such as Black Lives Matter. He also connects strikes such as The Oakland General Strike to the birth and eventual decline of the middle class in the United States. The result of these far-reaching connections is that while Loomis provides very specific histories of the strikes themselves, he also gives a thorough look at American history that makes a great refresher on various important time periods. This book is a dense read, but I think it is an important look at the role of labor in American history, maybe especially given the economic troubles and shifts in the labor market during our own time.

(Book Review) The Perfect Girlfriend

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton will be published March 26, 2019. I f5497cfb-5d26-4ff6-83b1-72d9eebf9cbfreceived an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

If you enjoyed You (either the novel by Caroline Kepnes or the Lifetime/Netflix series), then this novel could be a good next read for, well, you.

In The Perfect Girlfriend, Lily/Elizabeth/Juliette is obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Nate, but she is giving him space. After all, that’s what he asked for when he broke up with her. She thought that they were destined to be together and was shocked when he asked her to move out, so she’s using that space to plan her return to his heart as well as revenge on his sister, the high-school bully who made her miserable.

This book is a tangled web and not all of the threads really weave together well. In particular, the backstory about a tragedy in Lily’s past is a bit extraneous. It does not really contribute to the character development or the plot and could have safely been edited out. The story also goes totally off the rails at the end. In the last 30ish pages, Lily/Juliette/Elizabeth goes so far in her pursuit of Nate that the result is very cringeworthy and unbelievable.

Nevertheless, this book is enjoyable in the way that a good Lifetime movie is. It’s not great, but it is plenty diverting when you just feel like snuggling under the covers and drinking tea. The story and characters are somewhat derivative of smash hits that came before The Perfect Girlfriend (Gone Girl, You, The Talented Mr. Ripley), but if you enjoyed those then you might really like this too. Although I am a bit tired of the disturbed, stalking, evil jilted woman character, I have to admit that I still like to see her at work. My favorite parts of this novel are when Juliette is schemeing. I liked seeing the pieces of the puzzle come together. She’ll do something devious and I’ll guess what she’s playing at, and then the result is often much worse than I thought. It’s fun and a little salacious and made a great read for a snowy weekend.

(Book Review) Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

a37dc3fd-8b25-47ca-91ff-c8990c67bd87What a lovely, lovely, important book. Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement by Janet Dewart Bell includes interviews with nine black women about their work in the Civil Rights Movement, often emphasizing their focus on their intersectional experiences of race, gender, and class.

In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, Bell has given brief portraits of nine important women from the Civil Rights Movement and produced their stories in their own words, based on her interviews with them. The women included are Leah Chase, June Jackson Christmas, Aileen Hernandez, Diane Nash, Judy Richardson, Kathleen Cleaver, Gay McDougall, Gloria Richardson, and Myrlie Evers. Their experiences range from careers in publishing, psychiatry, and the law as well as work in the Civil Rights Movement including marching, taking part in the Freedom Rides, and losing loved ones to racial violence.

The book also features stories from women who were at different stages of their lives during the Civil Rights Movement and that gives an idea of how generational diversity came into play. For example, Leah Chase, who Tiana in The Princess and the Frog is based on, said:

“People my age, we were a bit frightened about it. It was so different from what we were trying to do. For instance, we were working with the NAACP, trying to work in the system, abide by the rules. Don’t offend this one. Don’t offend that one. And get it done. But then here comes the young people in the Movement and they said, ‘No. We gonna do this.’ And we thought, ‘Oh, God, what are they gonna do? What are they gonna do?’ People my age were kinda frightened. We didn’t know what was gonna happen.” (13)

In my dissertation, I had a chapter about Ruby Bridges and Sheyann Webb and Rachel West-Nelson and their personal account of the march in Selma, AL, Selma, Lord, Selma. For that chapter, I did a ton of research on young people in the Civil Rights Movement, so I was excited to read the profile on Diane Nash, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group of young people behind important Civil Rights Movement events such as the Freedom Rides. She was eventually elected the chairperson of SNCC and offers these thoughts on her fears:

“It was daunting. I’m not sure I did overcome my fear. I just kept doing what had to be done. The fear was definitely there, but fear was also a great motivator, because I knew if we were not efficient someone could get killed or injured. So that fear, I think made us extremely efficient.” (98)

Judy Richardson, who also worked with SNCC and went on to a career in publishing, notes the importance of hearing women’s stories from the Movement and also to focus on how the Civil Rights Movement made things better for everyone:

“In terms of the legacy of the Movement, I think it’s important to recognize that we didn’t just change things for black folks…So for example, with affirmative action we open up the door for lots of different kinds of people. It’s not just Latinos and Asian Americans who come in. That Stanford University study of affirmative action found it is white women who most benefited from affirmative action, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, somebody needs to tell them!'” (127).

On the intersection of race and gender, Gay McDougall, who worked in the anti-apartheid movement, said:

“Gender discrimination was everywhere, except at home, because my home and my extended family were very women dominated. But everywhere outside of home was male dominated. There were the churches, there were the schools. It’s interesting in the schools–most of them had female teachers but had male leadership and administration people. I think it was everywhere. Certainly all through the Civil Rights Movement.” (162)

I definitely recommend this book for people who are interested in both the history of the Civil Rights Movement and first-person accounts of individuals’ parts in it. The book does a great job of providing brief, poignant stories from the perspectives of women who were part of the Civil Rights Movement in various capacities and at different stages of their lives. In doing so, it provides a glimpse at the diverse opinions, talents, and perspectives that went into big moments in the Movement.

How to fix a watch band with a blowtorch

A couple of months ago, my mom gave me one of my dad’s watches. It’s a neat, self-winding watch, but, because it’s a men’s watch and I have small wrists, the band was too big. I tried to find a replacement band that would fit both the watch and me, but all I could find was the exact same band.

Empowered with the knowledge that I could replace the band if I needed to, I hit some message boards to see if watch afficianados had any advice on how to add a notch to a nylon watch band. Above you’ll see the result. Worked like a charm.

Historical Context: The Year of the Woman

freshman women in congress

Photo by Martin Schoeller for Vanity Fair

This month, there was a flurry of press about the women being sworn into the House of Representatives, among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to Congress, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davis; and Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American woman elected to Congress, and one of the first two Muslim women to serve. They were captured in an “instantly iconic” portrait by Martin Schoeller published in Vanity Fair. These women, Ocasio-Cortez in particular, are already making a splash and defending themselves and their ideas in the press and on Capitol Hill.

Since the midterm election, there have been articles hailing 2018 a new “Year of the Woman” and I want to provide a bit of an overview of why people are saying that and how this “Year of the Woman” compares to the last.

What is the “Year of the Woman”?

In 1992, an impressive-for-the-time number women–28–were elected to Congress, including two women from California–Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein–making it the first time a state was represented by two women in the Senate. This election nearly doubled the number of women in the House and raised the number of female senators from 2 to 6.

According to the Archives of the United States House of Representatives:

“The impressive gains by women in 1992 were not the product of any one galvanizing event, but, rather, the confluence of several long-term trends and short-term election year issues. Demographics, global politics, scandal, and the ripple effect of the women’s liberation movement all played a part in the results of that historic election.” (The Year of the Woman, 1992: History, Art & Archives of the United States House of Representatives)

The more popular interpretation, however, is that the “Year of the Woman” was a response to the controversial Anita Hill hearings during the confirmation process for Justice Clarence Thomas. Those hearings did not look good for Thomas (but he was still confirmed), and they did not look good for the Senate, as there were no women on the Senate Judicial Committee. That meant that Hill was questioned about her sexual harassment allegations by a bunch of old men. The optics are bad. It’s bad.

The Archives of the United States House of Representatives argues that:

“Expectations for a “breakthrough” year for women had been high since the late 1970s; in fact, 1984 had been hopefully, but prematurely, advertised as the “Year of the Woman.” Political observers discussed the rise of a “gender gap” and predicted that 6 million more women than men would vote in the 1984 elections. When Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was chosen as the Democratic candidate for Vice President that year—the first woman to appear on a major party ticket—expectations soared for a strong turnout by women at the polls.”

Still, the frustration and outrage over the Hill-Thomas debacle are looked at as a flashpoint. The narrative goes that women got frustrated by their lack of representation and set out to fix it. In addition to that frustration, there was also a growing pool of female candidates with experience, more availability of funding, a number of retiring members of congress, and the redistricting after the 1990 Census helped too.

Forty-seven of the 58 African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Pacific-American women who have served in Congress were elected between 1992 and 2016. Still, women only make up 23% of Congress as compared to 51% of the population. 

Why are people calling 2018 “Year of the Woman”?

There are clearly some parallels between 2018 and 1992. Women are still grossly underrepresented, and women of color even more so. Add in frustrations over sexist rhetoric coming out of the White House and the lingering disappointment and anger over the 2016 election and there is plenty to motivate women to run for election. Like in 1992, there is better access to funding and a spate of retirements. Then there was the confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh which featured the poignant testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about her allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh. He was still confirmed.  Jennifer Rubin writes for The Washington Post: 

“Absorbing the constant sting of Trump’s verbal arrows, women did not “get over” Trump’s election or learn to live with his serial affronts. They did not take kindly to his mocking of the #MeToo movement or of Christine Blasey Ford. It’s fair to say that women who would not have otherwise gotten politically involved did so because they could clearly see the mostly male political powers were not looking after their interests. So they marched, they organized, they became donors, they ran for office, they made new alliances, they ‘persisted,’ as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) complained when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) refused to sit down and be quiet as instructed on the Senate floor.” (“Year of the woman? Darn right.”)

By the numbers, how did this “Year of the Woman” stack up?

  • 7 gubernatorial pickups (4 Democrats and 3 Republicans), bringing female governors up to 9
  • Women will hold 96 seats in the House (a record); 23 seats in the Senate

According to Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institute, a “Year of the Woman” could have very practical and good results for Congress.  She explains that:

“[W]omen in legislative roles have been more likely to reach across the aisle. According to one study by political scientists, under some conditions, “while men may choose to obstruct and delay, women continue to strive to build coalitions and bring about new policies.” (“2018: Another ‘Year of the Woman’”)

The election of 117 women in 2018 also follows some longterm trends in the electorate: women vote more for Democrats and women vote more than men. Kamarck explains, “In addition to their preference for Democrats, women have voted in higher numbers than men since 1984 and 10 million more women are registered to vote than men. But women’s preferences for Democrats does not mean that Democrats win. They only win when the women’s preferences for Democrats exceed men’s preferences for Republicans—which was not the case in 2016″ (“2018: Another ‘Year of the Woman’”).

From where I’m sitting, the upward trend of the number of women serving on Capitol Hill is very slow and big problems still persist. Here’s hoping that this freshman class of go-getters can get some stuff done.

Further Reading: 



(Book Review) The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World

449c9c25-026f-452f-8537-1a71c82be43cWhen I saw The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World by Tim Marshall lurking in my paused holds at the library, I thought it couldn’t be more timely and snapped it up.

In the book, foreign affairs expert Tim Marshall examines border walls (a term he uses broadly to also include fences and other barriers) around the globe and unpacks what they represent in the politics of particular places. The book is part of a Politics and Place series.

The book begins with an overview of just how prevalent wall-building is in our current moment and what the rise of walls reflects about political discourse in our time. One particularly striking fact:

“At least sixty-five countries,  more than a third of the world’s nation-states, have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since World War II sprang up between 2000 and now” (2).

Given current events in the United States (the government shutdown over funding for a border wall that Trump said Mexico would pay for), I want to focus specifically on the chapter about the U.S.-Mexico Border. Of this border, Marshall writes:

“This is perhaps the most famous nonexistent wall in the world. But even though it is yet to be constructed, it is a powerful symbol of how division has driven and continues to drive the cultural and political juggernaut that is the USA” (42).

In the chapter, Marshall provides an overview of how the border wall became an issue in U.S. politics, tracking the building of fences along the border all the way back to the  acquisition of Texas in 1854, as well as in the Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama administrations. He also gives a history of how the southwestern border of the United States shifted over the course of the 1800s and the political concerns that influenced those changes. I think that history is very important for understanding some of the issues involving race, culture, and economics along that border. For example, Marshall discusses how the flow of migrant workers across the border became a political issue in the Great Depression, as the strategy was to protect jobs for U.S. workers (even leading to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of workers to Mexico—many of whom were U.S. citizens). Then, during World War II, when many U.S. citizens were off at war and the wartime industries were booming, the strategy changed to one of attracting workers from Mexico to work in farming and manufacturing in the United States.

After providing some historical context, Marshall sifts to our current moment and what the wall stands in for in the political rhetoric of the GOP. In short, he argues that the emphasis on building a wall stems from a desire to stypmie shifts in demographics that, if they follow current trends, would see nonwhite minorities, with Hispanics comprising the largest group, overtaking white Americans as the majority in the next thirty years. From there, he looks at other forms of difference that are dividing the  U.S. politically including religion, globalization, and political party.

Overall, this book provides an overview of the issues, but not a lot of depth. I think that the move from looking at the U.S.-Mexico border wall to looking at divisions in U.S. politics more broadly was kind of a bait-and-switch; I would have liked the connections to be drawn out more. There were also some odd writing moments that could have used a more meticulous copy editor. For example: “America is a violent country compared to Europe” (62) sounds weird considering that the United States is a country and Europe is a continent. Nevertheless,  for a causal reader (like me) looking for more historical and geopolitical context for the current nationalist moment, this book provides some good insights and is fairly easy to read.

Other chapters of note: I suspect the analysis of the Israel-Palestine border is fairly shallow, but so is my understanding of that conflict, so I found it helpful.  There is also an interesting chapter about China.  From there, the analysis moves from countries to continents and in this move gets less specific in its analysis.

Book Review: Sourdough by Robin Sloan (another fave)

98e0715b-5bae-479a-89ae-73eb05230a47After I posted my favorite books that I read in 2018, I felt like I had missed one: Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I really enjoyed this book. The story is so odd and the narrative voice offbeat and clever in a way that does not come off as overly ironic or affected. And it’s about sourdough bread. 🍞 🥖

In the novel, Lois Clary is living the life of a workaholic cog at a tech company in San Francisco and questioning why exactly she moved there from Michigan in the first place. Because of her long days, she does not have much time for a hobby or any personal relationships. And she’s getting sick. Her “closest friends” are the brothers who run a food stall that serves a spicy soup and sourdough bread that gives Lois a nearly religious experience. When the brothers suddenly close their shop, they gift Lois a bit of their sourdough starter. Nurturing the starter and making sourdough from it becomes a quickly rewarding hobby for Lois, and the starter seems to have a magical life of its own. As her relationship with the starter and the little microbes themselves flourish, so does Lois, taking her on an adventure into the cutting edge, underground food world of San Francisco.

e167bcb6-26d2-4302-a8e6-10e7802ae8c2Sourdough is a very silly novel, but silly in such a delightful, thoughtful way.  I enjoyed the narrative voice, especially in self-reflexive moments such as:

“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”

I adored how the descriptions of the sourdough starter grew as the persona of the starter did. The starter sort of “sings” after Lois feeds it, and that starts her suspicions that it is unusual. It is also high maintenance and has to be fed and played music. Lois find that it has many quirks:

“I realized suddenly that my apartment reeked of bananas. I followed the scent to the kitchen, where the Clement Street starter had more than doubled in volume and was surging out of the crock, puffy tendrils oozing down the green ceramic. I heard a crispy, crackling pock-pock-pock; the starter was not merely bubbling but frothing. It is only barely anthropomorphization to say it looked happy.”

The relationship with the starter and the bread it produces have slight magical realist elements that reminded me subtly of Like Water for Chocolate.

Other delightful elements of the story include Lois attending a club of other women named Lois and getting to know the women a bit, and her reflections on what amounts to a pretty poor diet. My two major complaints about the book are that the ending left me wanting a bit more (not in a good way), and that the depiction of the brothers, Beoreg and Chaiman, made me a little uneasy as it seemed to verge on some stereotypes. I think Sloan mostly skirts this by making the ethic background of the brothers kind of nondescript, but it was nearly problematic.

At any rate, I found this book whimsical, delightful, and very odd and I kept thinking about it long after I read it. I’ve never made sourdough or interacted with a starter, so for all I know they could all be magic. It makes me want to try it out.